On New Year's Day, I found myself reflecting on what I had accomplished in 2020, but also on what I hadn't accomplished. True, I graduated college, and true, I had started a great new job. But still, the things I didn't accomplish seemed to gnaw at me.
I lugged a whole stack of books across the country to California, but only read a few. I dumped more money into a domain name and art for an almost finished project, but couldn't summon the gut to spend a few hours cleaning up the code and writing documentation. Perhaps what nagged at me the most, I had just spent 6 months in California (and paying California rent and taxes), but I had barely scratched the surface of what this state has to offer. I don't know how long I'll be here, maybe another year and a half. If I don't see Yosemite, Death Valley, Mount Diablo, and so many other places before I leave here, I'll never forgive myself.
The last few months of 2020, my work load increased quite a bit. My mentor had an extended absence in October, requiring me to fill their shoes. I accepted multiple new projects in November and fought hard to complete them before I left for the holidays.
When I ruminated on the closing months of 2020, my friends and family were quick to reassure me, "your job can be demanding," and "you've been really busy." I appreciated their words, but still couldn't shake a lingering feeling of disappointment in myself.
The Depression-Dopamine Cycle
I always say, busy is a state of mind. Sure, I might be in lab until 6 (or 9) PM. But, I spent every weekend of November and December at home, glued to my computer and lapsing into mindless escapism. Clearly, I have no shortage of time.
At best, I was programming during these periods. At worst, I was playing games from middle school and marinating in a soup of purposelessness and self-hatred. A bad episode of ennui could keep me up later and later, deluding myself into thinking that I would spend the hours of 12-2 A.M. more productively than I spent the hours of 8-11 P.M. Finally, I go to sleep, only to wake up the next morning with my vitality sapped and my brain full of lead. I go to work, get excited at a few things, but mostly push through my work with the hope of doing something more meaningful when I get home. Only to repeat the cycle.
When I describe theis pattern to my reassuring loved ones, they usually diagnose it as burnout. "You're low on energy after a day at work." For a long time, I believed this. I used to think "phew, what a long day at work, time to reward myself with 2, no, 5 hours of [Minecraft, Rimworld, Mordhau, Skyrim]". Does playing video games until 1:00 A.M. sound like a "low energy" problem?
As another, much earlier example, when I dual-enrolled in college classes in high school, I had a sizeable (45+ minute) commute to and from campus. I have many memories of hopping in my 2006 Honda Civic at 4:00PM, buzzing with energy and ready to speed home and get the jump on my homework... only to get home absolutely exhausted. I would often pull into the driveway only to sit in my car, scrolling mindlessly through my phone and unable to summon the will to walk inside and face the world.
What happened? Is this another case of "low energy"?
As I walked out of the classroom, I felt energized. If I had cracked open my textbook and started grinding out problem sets, I probably could have gone for 2 more hours (maybe 3 with a snack) and then driven home without issue. I had enough energy in the tank to get the work done, so what happened?
There's something high-friction about sitting in stop and go traffic. Some call it "soul-sucking". You can train a dog to drive a car. It only requires that you're semi-conscious and have basic motor functionality. It's not meaningful and it leaves your brain idling, wasting the enthusiasm and momentum that you had when you stepped into the car.
Some days at work can be like sitting in traffic. If you're lucky like me, these days are few. Unfortunately, this isn't the case of most people.
So when you're faced with high-friction tasks that drain your momentum, what can you do?
Losing energy, gaining momentum.
All tasks demand some amount of energy. Merely existing requires energy. What makes life rewarding and fun, is doing things, especially meaningful things. These meaningful things excite you, turn your potential into kinetic energy, and increase your momentum. Boring, unfufilling tasks leave you depressed, waste your potential without a corresponding gain in kinetic energy, and reduce your momentum.
I've mentioned sitting in traffic, but video games and doomscrolling are also momentum-draining tasks. Sure, they don't take much energy, but they also leave you unfulfilled (at least for me). How many times have you spent hours playing a game and thought, "wow, that was awesome. I can't wait to go to work tomorrow!" I'm guessing never. But many times I've gone to the gym, finished a difficult project, or completed some other cognitively or physically demanding task and found myself eager to do more. Even something simple like cleaning my room can snap me out of a depressive slump.
Weaving these experiences together, I'm entering 2021 with a new philosophy on motivation.
- Every task drains some "energy".
- "Momentum" makes life feel good.
- Only meaningful, rewarding tasks increase your momentum.
- Hedonistic or menial tasks decrease your momentum.
- Therefore, minimize hedonistic and menial tasks while maximizing rewarding tasks.
None of this is really novel, but I mostly want to highlight that simple, hedonistic tasks can rob you of your happiness just as much as menial, boring tasks can. As I learned over these past few months, it's all too easy to fall into a pattern of long work periods punctuated by dopamine binges.
After dropping my girlfriend off at the airport, I still had one more week left of grinding before I could return home and see my family. At this point in my life, this was the longest I had gone without seeing my parents and friends from my home state. (In 2020, I was hardly the only person in that situation.) Chill and rain set over the Bay, and I was left completely alone thousands of miles from my loved ones. Times like this would make one most vulnerable to a depressive slump. Right?
On the contrary, by sheer accident, this last week turned out to be the most exciting one in months. For our company's holiday party, my team planned to create an amateur music video.\ I volunteered as producer, with the dubious credentials of making a small video a few weeks earlier. To be honest, I wasn't sure if I could deliver the video on time.
So, I woke up every day at 5-6 A.M. to grind on it. (I was lucky if I got out of bed by 8:30 on a work day and 10:00 A.M. on a weekend.) I loved it. The joy that this video brought me began to spill over into other parts of my life. My apartment got cleaner and my diet improved.
I've always had a neat, well-rounded life without any bad lows. When I'm in a slump, I can usually still project an image of confidence and organization to others, even if my room gets a little messy and my work ethic suffers a bit. But during what should have been a depressing, stressful week, I felt the totality of my life become more enriching, like I discovered a new dimension of happiness.
If you read this as a long way of saying, "sorry I didn't write any blog posts, I promise I'll make more lol", you're not entirely wrong.
Still, I felt that I should put my experiences into writing. My hope is that, having shared this new perspective on motivation, I can stay motivated and be a better approximation of the person I want to be.